Today I’m really excited to have a real treat for you. The fabulous crime writer G.J. Brown (Gordon to his friends) has penned a fantastic new short story and he’s letting me post it here on the CTG Blog as an exclusive.
I think you’re going to enjoy this …
This is a Sarah Tracy short story. Sarah is a detective in the LAPD and had her first outing in a short story called ‘ebgdea’ which was included in an anthology, entitled Blood on the Bayou, commissioned for the U.S. crime festival, Bouchercon 2016. Tracy is distantly connected to my main protagonist, Craig McIntyre (The Catalyst and Meltdown) – as she will team up with him in book 4 (book 3, Dynamite, is out in March 2017, published by Strident). I never intended Sarah to become a main character but when scoping out book 4 I think I fell a little in love. I’m working on ten short stories with her as the central detective. This is my first foray into police procedural so be gentle with me.
The dead don’t speak and, written in the silence that follows their departure, lie unanswered questions. The secrets they take to the grave.
For some people, these unknowable riddles hold meaning so deep that they hurt. Most everyone wants to the know the why. The why trumps the who, what, where, when and how. It’s the why that people seek. Even the most transparent of lives, those laid bare by interrogation or oration, still hide answers, squirrelled away – waiting to be uncovered. Or, and this makes it all the more unbearable, matters, never to be revealed. Banished to corners too remote to access or places too obscure to be found.
Detective Sarah Tracy was looking down on a body that, more than any case she had ever worked on, demanded the answer to why.
The how was obvious. When a forty-ton rig hits a human body, and does so at seventy miles an hour, the survival rate is low. When it hits a body that has already been struck by an SUV, driven by a man three times over the drink drive limit, the survival rate is as good as zero.
The where is even easier. The freeway, all six south bound lanes closed to tend to the accident, is the scene of death. The SUV is nose into the wall that borders the freeway, a last ditch attempt to avoid the victim had sent the car into a spin where metal met concrete. The rig is sitting above the body, having dragged it over a hundred yards, before the air brakes brought the beast to a halt. Both drivers are in shock.
No surprise there.
There’s no deep mystery to the when. Sarah got the call less than fifteen minutes ago. The accident had been reported by the driver of the only other civilian car now left in the vicinity. A young lady, driving a high mileage Honda, and cutting early from a late night job at CVS, had been clipped by the SUV. She had been going slow enough to keep things under control but, she too was in shock.
The what is far harder to work out. Three options sit at the top of Sarah’s list – suicide, murder or accident. In most cases the what is intrinsically linked to the why. Sometimes the why informs the what. Sometimes the other way round. In all cases the why will nail the whole thing.
Sarah isn’t sure on the what. A few details are making it a little trickier than usual.
She jumps to who. While waiting on the forensic scientist she would normally look for a wallet or a purse – something to ID the victim. IDing someone usually speeds up the why and the what. But ID in this case is not easy. Despite what seems to have been an industrial amount of damage inflicted on the victim, first by the SUV strike and then the rig hitting, before towing, the body, it’s not possible for Sarah to search the corpse.
She reaches down to touch, with a pen just extracted from her pocket, the material the body is wrapped in.
Her partner wanders up and stands beside her. ‘Bubble wrap.’
Sarah stands up. ‘There so much of it I’m still not sure who or what’s inside.’
Tim Craig, a ten year served cop, stands with his feet apart. He’s carrying thirty pounds more round his waist than he did at his peak, and standing is not getting any easier. ‘Looks like a body to me. I can see fingers where the bubble wrap has been ripped by the rig.’
Sarah sighs. ‘There could be a couple of hundred feet of bubble wrap in that bundle. It could hide two bodies or a single hand. You can’t see through the stuff.’
Tim swivels his hips for relief. ‘SUV driver isn’t making much sense. He’s drunk and claiming that the…’ Tim pauses. ‘Well whatever this is, hit him. Not the other way round.’
‘Sarah go ask him. He says one moment he’s listening to Johnny Cash winding up the inmates at San Quentin. The next he’s bombed from the air. Says it hit his hood.’
Sarah looks back along the road. A few hundred yards to the rear, an overpass is casting a shadow on the freeway.
She imagines the bundle falling on the SUV, the driver swerving and losing control, as the bubble wrap monster bounces off the hood and onto the highway. The rig picking it up – a football to its fender. The bubble wrap catching on the truck, the bubble wrap ball flicking out to one side to be dragged along the road.
It doesn’t make the why any clearer but makes the what a little easier. It would be a hell of a way to commit suicide. Not impossible, but to wrap yourself in so much bubble wrap and throw yourself off a bridge, onto a busy freeway, doesn’t have the scent of inevitability that the genuine suicide victim craves. Although it could have been a cry for help. But that’s a massive stretch.
‘Where’s Millwood?’ Tim is now bending at the middle. Millwood was a member of the LAPD Scientific Investigation Division.
Sarah checks the time on her phone. ‘On his way. They had another crime scene to attend to. Fifteen minutes is my best guess.’
The sound of people laying on horns, the squeal of brakes and the resultant crunch of vehicle on vehicle snaps Susan’s head up. Just in time to see a giant, off white ball shoot into the sky above the north bound freeway.
Tim shouts. ‘Fuck, is that another one?’
Unlike the southbound freeway which had been uncongested, allowing cars to brake in time, the rubber-neckers on the other side had slowed the north bound to a conga line – but one still moving at thirty plus. Sarah could only watch, mouth hanging open, as another giant ball of bubble wrap returned to earth, hit a compact on the roof and bounced across the freeway onto the southbound carriage way, rolling to a halt under the overpass.
The southbound freeway quickly jammed solid and people started to emerge from their cars. Sarah sprinted to the median, shouting. ‘Get back in your vehicles, get back in your vehicles.’
She knows that the chaos of the crash isn’t over. With the sound of vehicles still hitting each other further down the freeway, she is more than aware of what will happen to someone out in the open.
A motorcycle, traveling fast, zips by, the rider unable to stop. A man, one foot on the freeway, about to push up, door open, creates a dam for the fleeing vehicle. The motorcycle hits the door and catapults into the air, throwing the rider free. The leather clad body does a somersault and lands, like a rag doll, on top of a Mini. The body slides across the roof, before flowing off and out of sight.
‘All the same?’
‘All the same.’
Sarah was in the incident room. She had asked the first question. Tim had answered. Twelve bubble wrap monsters had been dropped across the freeway system of LA, bringing gridlock to the main arteries. The chaos had been immense. People had been re-routed onto other streets but LA is a car city and no amount of alternate routes could cope with the sheer weight of the traffic. Even now, fourteen hours after the first incident, parts of LA were still gridlocked.’
‘And how many bodies were in the bubble wrap?’ Sarah asks.
‘Milwood just called and this is a doozy.’
‘One body. Sarah, you were closer than you though when you said it could be a single hand. Four of the bubble wraps each contained an arm or a leg. One held the head. One the genitals.’
‘And the other six?’
‘One the torso, one the heart, one the liver, one the kidney, one the lungs and the last one the brain.’
‘Someone took the brain out?’
Tim looks at the print-out. ‘Someone dissected the body and, according to Milwood, did so with no subtlety. It looks like they cracked open the skull with a hammer to get to the brain.’
Sarah sips at a coffee she really doesn’t need. ‘ID?’
‘Nothing yet. No matches on the system but, then again, it’s too early.’
‘Can we put a rush on it?’
‘So let’s get this straight. Someone chopped up a body into twelve parts, wrapped each part in bubble wrap and then launched them off overpasses, onto various freeways.’ Sarah leans back. ‘And so far, no one saw a thing.’
Tim blinks. ‘You would need a squad of people to do this. All the incidents happened within thirty minutes of each other. Two of them are twelve miles apart.’
Sarah puts the coffee down. ‘So we have six sites. In each case the perp dropped a bundle on both sides of the same freeway. Each time they dropped the first, waited for the log jam on the other side, and finished the job.’
‘My name is Sarah Tracy. I’m a detective with the LAPD. I suppose you’ve heard the news on the ‘bubble wrap bombs’.’ Sarah hated the way the media needed a name for everything.
‘Sure,’ said the man
Sarah was sitting in a small office, facing a well-built man who was wearing a cheap suit and sporting a day’s worth of growth on his face. He fiddled with a battered iPhone as Sarah talked.
‘Thanks for helping out Mr Sanrez.’
‘No problem. But can this be quick? I’ve been up all night trying to fix this mess.’
Sarah nods. ‘Sure.’ She had been up all night as well but she had learned the hard way that no one cared about that if you were police.
‘To get this right you’re the highways supervisor for this area.’
‘I’ll keep this simple. Did whoever dropped the bubble wrap on the freeways, show any special knowledge of the highway system.’
‘And some. Please call me Dan.’
‘Ok Dan, why do you say that?’
Dan reaches out of site and fumbles around, pulling a map from a battered old briefcase. He spreads it out on the table. The map has twelve red stars dotted on it. He points to the stars. ‘These are the incidents. I’m telling you something here. If you wanted to bring this section of LA to a complete halt you couldn’t do better than block those spots.’
He wipes his hand across the map. ‘Detective, we plan for accidents in key locations. We plan for the worst possible scenarios but whoever did this knew we would be screwed. Well and truly screwed.’
Sarah was looking at the autopsy report. ‘So the body has been identified?’
Tim was munching on an apple, his concession to the healthy diet his wife wanted him to follow. ‘Col Wernicke. A manager out near the airport in a company called WellpackPlus. Marlon is out there now trying to find out more.’
‘Tina this isn’t going well.’ Sarah was sitting in the interview room, a gloomy hole that stank of fear and tiredness. A young lady was sitting across from her. She was wearing a blue coverall, with the name ‘WellpackPlus’ picked out on the breast pocket.
‘Tina, we found blood on the warehouse floor. A lot of blood. And I’m betting those stains on your coverall aren’t jelly.’
Tina sits, no words. She might just know the why. Sarah is convinced of it.
‘Do you know what it’s like to be bullied at work.’ Tina had waived the right to a lawyer. Sarah thought this dumb but it was Tina’s right to be dumb. Tina kept talking. ‘Do you?’
Sarah nods. She’d had her fill of sexist remarks from a captain in a previous precinct. It had eaten her like cancer. She had eventually stood up to it, then spoke up and, to her surprise, things got fixed at speed, even down to an apology from the bastard. ‘I know something of it.’
‘Not like that bastard. Not even close I bet.’ Tina was spitting the words.
‘WellpackPlus is a packing specialist. We source packing material for clients. Anything from cardboard boxes to unique shit that can end up carrying the weirdest stuff. Col is the night manager and I work nights. I’m also at school some days, trying to get out of that hell hole. We work seven to six. That’s the hours. Five days a week. I go to college two days a week from ten to four. When the two cross I need to plan well to get any sleep. If I finish at 6 am I can beat the LA traffic and be home by 6.30. Three hours sleep and I’m good to go. But if I’m late out of the warehouse I plough the LA rush-hour and it can take two hours to get home. Then I’m fucked.’
Sarah leans in. ‘Does that happen often?’
‘We don’t get paid overtime so we are all supposed to cut at 6. But that bastard Col is a lazy shit. He can’t be bothered doing the work sheets and lets us muddle through. If he did his fucking job, then the nightshift would be planned, and we would all get home on time. More often than not he drinks, doesn’t do the sheets and then comes down on us like a ton of bricks when it’s time to leave, and the day shift isn’t set up for.’
‘We unload and rack up the material for the day shift. If we don’t’ do it right, it’s Col that gets it. That’s why he keeps us back.’
‘So Tina killed Col on her own. Then cut up the body on her own. Then dumped twelve bubble wrap bombs on the freeway, at strategic points, all within thirty minutes of each other – on her own?’ Tim was sitting with Sarah, relaxing in the local police coffee haunt.
Sarah rubs her temple. ‘So she says?’
‘It’s not possible?’
Sarah had to agree the what was now clear – murder. The how less so than before. And there was still the..
‘Why?’ Tim said.
Sarah pulls out her phone. ‘I’ll let Tina tell you.’ She starts the playback on the recording function, plugs in her headphones and hands them to Tim.’
Sarah’s voice. ‘So you killed him?’
Tina’s voice. ‘Dam right?’
‘I told you I go to college Tuesdays and Thursdays. The same days that we receive deliveries of bubble wrap. They turn up around four thirty. It’s the last thing to be packed away on these days. Have you seen rolls of the stuff?’
‘They’re big. Taller than me and three times as wide. When they arrive everyone is usually at the other end of the warehouse trying to stack up for the day shift. And, most days, we’re nowhere near ready. When we’re miles behind that bastard Col would get them to stack the bubble wrap, two pallets high, across the entrance. No way to get past. Then he would announce to us all that the forklift battery was dead. That it would take a couple of hours to charge and that we may as well keep stacking.’
‘And you can’t leave any other way?’
‘The bastard chains up the fire doors. Tells us its company policy. The only way in or out is through the main door and there ain’t no way you can get past when the bubble wrap is there. He knows I go to college on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We used to get the bubble wrap on Mondays and Wednesdays – he had it changed after I grassed him up for drinking. He should have been fired but they kept him on. For eight weeks I’ve had no sleep before college – eight weeks.’
Tim pulls off the headphones. ‘So we know the why but still not how – unusual.’
Sarah taps the back of Tim’s hand. ‘I know the how. Some, if not all, of her co-workers were in on it but no one is talking. I think Tina killed him, cut him up and wrapped him. She must have had help to dump the ‘bombs’, but no one is saying.’
‘And no one saw anything?’
‘The CCTV at WellpackPlus is on the fritz. We’re checking cameras for signs of the dumping but the cameras cover the freeways not the overpasses.’
‘And how did she cut up the body – did the others help?’
‘No, they all came up clean. There’s a machine they use for slicing cardboard and bubble wrap. Tina used that. There was a minimal attempt at a clean-up but, there was so much blood, it failed.’
‘And with no one else on site bar the workers, it’s our word against theirs.’
‘They all hate Col and seem happy to let Tina take the hit.’
‘And how did she know to drop them where they would cause maximum disruption?’
‘The victim, Col, used to do Dan Sanrez’s job but got fired for drinking. There’s a little more on the phone.’
Sarah’s voice. ‘So why drop the ‘bombs’ where you did.’
Tina’s voice. ‘Because Col told us, more than once, where the maximum damage could be done. He never stopped droning on about his old job, about how he had been treated badly. How he had been the best in the business. How, he was the man who sorted out the traffic in LA. He would hold us back some mornings just to explain, for the millionth time, what he used to do, how important he was and why things never went wrong in his day – unlike now. I think it paid twice, maybe even more, than WellpackPlus. That’s why he was so pissed all the time. He even showed us how to screw up the whole freeway system on a map. Pointed out the key spots. Told us that 12 well placed accidents would cause the biggest fucking traffic jam in LA history. Time after time, whisky fumes killing us, he poured out the same story. He never shut up about the fucking thing.’
‘And why not just kill him and be done with it? Why do what you did?’
‘I suffered every time he pulled the bubble wrap shit. So what better use to put the bastard to. I wanted him to be the fuck up of all time. Not in his current job – in the one he never stopped talking about. I wanted people to know that it was that bastard that was responsible. I just wanted everyone in LA to know that the worst traffic jam ever, was down to him. That, even in death, he was a monumental fuck up.’
Sarah looks at Tim as he switches off the phone. She knows that, at some point, one of the other workers will confess, or slip up, maybe before the trial, and that Tina will have some cell mates.
What she also knows is, that sometimes, when it comes to murder, it isn’t the dead that know the why.
A massive thank you to Gordon for letting readers of the CTG blog be the first to read this short story. I’d certainly like to see more of Sarah Tracy.
For more info on Gordon and his writing see www.gordonjbrown.com and follow him on Twitter @GoJaBrown
Hop across to Amazon.co.uk here to buy his latest book – Meltdown
Or pop over to Amazon.com here to buy his latest book in the US – Falling
About G.J. Brown
Gordon lives in Scotland but splits his time between the UK, the U.S.A. and Spain. He’s married with two children. Gordon once quit his job in London to fly across the Atlantic to be with his future wife. He has also delivered pizzas in Toronto, sold non alcoholic beer in the Middle East, launched a creativity training business called Brain Juice and floated a high tech company on the London Stock Exchange.
He almost had a toy launched by a major toy company, has an MBA, loves music, is a DJ on local radio, compered the main stage at a two-day music festival and was once booed by 49,000 people while on the pitch at a major football Cup Final.
Gordon has been writing since his teens and has four books published – his latest in the UK is Meltdown and in the U.S., Falling..